The trained drones’ handlers would deploy their drones in the Selous Game Reserve, Biharamulo/Burigi/Kimisi, Moyowosi/Malagarasi, and Msanjesi and Lukwika/Lumesule game reserves.
The training was undertaken by Smartplane-Sweden in Tanzania and more than 18 drones were donated for the purpose.
This training programme was implemented at the request of the TAWA after very successful use of drones in February 2017 that located illegal grazing of livestock deep inside Burigi Game Reserve in Kagera region.
The drones’ technology has now undergone drastic improvement including being fitted with infrared/thermo sensors that can detect poachers in the thick woodlands.
The Selous Game Reserve vegetation cover is over 60 per cent, making it difficult to detect poachers and any other illegal activities that may be taking place inside the reserve.
A new tool for image analysis has also been developed to zero down on detailed actions in the images.
The drone mosaics, for instance, “shows an illegal gold mining in a game reserve and a set of canoes inside a protected area, you actually see people,” according to Allan Carlson whose institution, WWF-Sweden, has donated the drones.
In addition, the drone mosaics, if enhanced, using image segmentation can remotely help to identify poachers’ modus operandi
like footprints, bicycle, motorcycles tracks, camps, snares, pit traps, trees fresh cuts, among others.
For the last five years, the Selous Game Reserve, a UNESCOs World Heritage Site has lost over 60 per cent of its elephant population while the rhino population remains unknown.
The largest conservation area in Africa measuring 50,000 square kilometres is famous for having the only remnant of the black rhino population of sub species Dicerosbicornis minor in Eastern Africa.
In 1981, it harboured one of the largest elephant and black rhino populations on the African continent numbering 90,000 elephant and 3,000 black rhino, respectively.
However, by 2014, only less than 15,000 elephants and 27 rhinos remained following the unleashing of industrial poaching.
This and the proposed industrial development, mining, and continued exploration of oil and gas within the ecosystem puts the Selous Game Reserve on a danger list and risks being removed from the World Heritage Site status.
“The range of the drones’ capability is well suited to the undulating terrains of the game reserves.
Fitted with cameras which have been installed with infrared/thermo sensors that easily detect humans on the ground, it is now
possible to see remotely what is happening in areas we have not been able to patrol and bring to an end poaching and other illegal activities,” says the Selous Game Reserve Likuyu sector manager.
The drones are able to cover huge areas which promise an effective fight against poaching that has eluded game rangers, leading to the killing of elephants and rhinos in the vast game reserve.
Evidence-based patrols using drones will significantly cut down the cost of patrols and poachers aware of being monitored remotely and from the sky will keep off from the reserves.
The same technology should be used in community Wildlife Management Areas, critical elephant dispersal areas, which are adjacent to the game reserves.
WWF Tanzania Country Office is working with WWF United Kingdom and WWF Sweden to develop a robust national rhino programme.
However, the vastness and inaccessibility of the Selous Game Reserve pauses a challenge for the best protection of wildlife living within it.
With about 700 rangers in the Selous, the 75 square kilometre area coverage per ranger is triple the international standards for effective patrols but could be sufficient with the use of drones.
“By using these drones, Tanzania is going a step forward in fighting poaching and to realize WWF Zero poaching strategy,” says the WWF Tanzania Country Office Director, Dr Amani Ngusaru.
The introduction of the drones is in line with the now preferred intelligence-based anti-poaching efforts rather than depending only on ground deployment of rangers and heavy equipment.
Authored by Dr Noah Sitati, WWF Tanzania Country Office Wildlife Species Expert and Asukile Kajuni, Deputy Ruvuma Landscape Programme Coordinator
By Noah Sitati and Asukile Kajuni